A clinical second half from the Maroons and a perfectly-executed Cooper Cronk field goal have helped Queensland edge an 11-10 win over a resolute Blues side that suffered a from serious lack of execution in the second half.
It is a measure of the defensive capabilities of Laurie Daley's men on their own try-line that they conceded just two tries in 80 minutes despite handing a raft of the best attacking rugby league players of their generation chance after chance at their line.
Having taken a four-point lead to half time, the Blues just never got going in a dire second half in which they made simple errors in attack and defence and lacked execution in the big moments.
And, after having been outmuscled through the middle period of a first half in which the Blues stormed back from 6-0 down to 10-6 up, the Maroons managed to lift their game to another level after the break to shut their opponents out.
While there was little to separate the forward packs, the potency of the Queensland backs on early hit ups far exceeded that of their opponents, and while maligned Blues halves Trent Hodkinson and Mitch Pearce were solid if unspectacular, their more storied opponents managed to find the big plays just when it mattered.
Thurston was a constant threat and Cronk added the finishing touches with a try and a field goal, while Pearce kicked for a match-high 480 metres, defended well, set up a try, and Hodkinson failed to find touch from a penalty at a crucial time.
Queensland had enjoyed the momentum in the opening salvos following a Will Chambers half break and later a penalty against Josh Jackson for a flop.
It almost led to a try after eight minutes, but the video referee overruled the on-field officials after finding Billy Slater had illegally pushed Trent Hodkinson out of the way before grounding Cameron Smith's grubber.
But with the first half continuing to be played in Blues territory, Smith forced a dropout before a beautifully worked short side play on the last from the same man following a quick play the ball from Sam Thaiday created a three-on-one and allowed Cooper Cronk to slice over for a 6-0 lead.
The Blues desperately needed some more go-forward and it came from their starting big men, with both Aaron Woods and James Tamou putting into monstrous first stints of 90 and 72 metres respectively in the opening half hour – easily the best of any forwards on the field.
It was Tamou that sparked the Blues into gear when a powerful charge was followed by a precision offload to a flying Josh Dugan, who raced through a gap and, as Slater loomed up on him, dropped a perfect ball onto the toe.
Josh Morris showed great awareness to beat Darius Boyd to the ball in the corner, although Trent Hodkinson just missed the sideline conversion attempt.
With the game back to being played in the middle part of the field, a Nate Myles dropped ball on the Queensland 30 handed the Blues a chance to hit the lead and they constructed points through their halves, with Hodkinson feeding Pearce who produced a great step and pass to put Beau Scott over.
As the coaches started to roll the interchanges on the field from the half hour point, some of the energy slipped out of the game as Blues rookies Andrew Fifita and David Klemmer struggled to maintain the lofty standards of their opening props but some stiff Blues defence meant the Blues held their four-point advantage at the break.
Only an early Daniel Tupou dropped ball separated the Blues from a 100 per cent completion rate in the first half, while the Maroons weren't far behind completing 15 of 18. Highlighting how close the opening stanza was, the Blues made 190 tackles to Queensland's 191, and 690 running metres to Queensland's 195.
The Maroons almost got off to the perfect start on the resumption; a risky Farah offload couldn't be handed by Pearce before Hodkinson failed to find touch with a penalty kick awarded as the Blues defused an attacking kick. Darius Boyd almost became Origin's highest try-scorer from the ensuing set but a tap-on from Greg Inglis went in front of Boyd into touch.
The let-off didn't last long, as the Blues continued to make poor errors in attack and defence while the Maroons, in a manner they have typified over the past decade, found another level in defence to hem the Blues in their own territory.
The pressure finally told in the 55th minute when a well worked play from Cronk in a runaround with Sam Thaiday allowed Slater's cut-out to put winger Will Chambers over for his first Origin try, levelling the scores at 10-all.
In desperate search of momentum, Daley brought his starting props back into the contest and injected Trent Merrin for the first time.
But the Blues' handling continued to unravel, completing just five from their first nine sets in the second half, as Queensland continued to turn the screws with strong defence and clinical kicks, forcing back-to-back line drops outs midway through the half.
A lifting penalty against Merrin on Thurston prompted Thurston to take questionable attempt at two points and the shot didn't have the legs, with Dugan running the ball out past the 20 in a huge let off for the home team.
An almost identical lifting penalty against the Maroons just inside their half from the ensuing set handed the Blues their first attacking set of the half more than 30 minutes from the resumption, but again their execution was poor. They failed to set for a field goal and a Michael Jennings grubber went dead to gift a seven tackle set from where Cronk showed the Blues how it's done, nailing a one-pointer with clinical precision just over five minutes from time.
Daley again went to his bench, hoping Klemmer and Fifita could find the spark to get his side in attacking range. A field goal attempt from Josh Dugan went wide as the Blues again failed to set for the shot.
With the seconds ticking away, a strip looked to have given the Blues a chance but it was ruled there were two in the tackle and the Maroons were easily able to soak up the last 90 seconds on the clock to hold on to the one-point win.
Queensland 11 (Cronk, Chambers tries; Thurston goal; Cronk field goal) defeated New South Wales 10 (Morris, Scott tries; Hodkinson goal). Half-time: New South Wales 10-6. Crowd:80,122.
State of Origin I: Five Key Points
In the closest of Origin encounters, resolute defence from NSW proved not quite enough as Queensland's experienced campaigners found a way to win. Here are five key points from the Maroons' 11-10 win on Wednesday night.
Queensland show how and when to take a field goal
The Blues had two chances for a crucial field goal, the first in the 73rd minute to go 11-10 up, and the second a few minutes from time to try and level at 11-all, and fluffed both. The first was a decision making error, and Mitchell Pearce ended up spreading it right on the fourth when he or Trent Hodkinson could have taken a shot from in front, then they spread it back left on the last through Hodkinson to centre Michael Jennings, whose grubber went dead. The second, in the 77th minute, Robbie Farah's pass from dummy half went to fullback Josh Dugan rather than halfback Trent Hodkinson.
By contrast, on Queensland's only real opportunity, they set well, Cronk went deep, received the ball with no pressure on him and calmly potted it from in front.
After the game Pearce said a fourth tackle attempt at a field goal in the first instance would have been preferable.
"We had an opportunity, we probably should have gone for a field goal there. It's disappointing. I'll have to watch it back. At the time, we still had our chance on the last tackle, but we probably should have set that up a bit better.
"We talked about playing the set out and working for a field goal at the end so we probably could have gone for it a play earlier which was disappointing."
Farah took the blame for the second one not finding its mark.
"That was probably my fault there, again we just didn't execute," Farah said of the second effort.
"He [Dugan] struck it well though, he just missed. Again, under fatigue we've got to be better there and probably set up and get ourselves in a better position to execute that play."
Cameron Smith said when the Jennings grubber went dead it presented Queensland with a chance.
"As soon as that ball went dead myself, Cooper and JT said that if we have an opportunity then we were going to take the one point and I thought our team did a very good job to get us into that position. Especially our early carries.
"We probably took 30 or 40 off them in our first three runs so we were really controlling there when we needed too. Cooper's slotted a few over the couple of years whether it's been for Queensland or for the Melbourne Storm so he struck it nicely and he struck it when it counted so it was a good play, a big play."
Experience edges youth... just
The lead-up to the highly-anticipated series opener had a heavy focus around the old heads of Queensland taking on the youth and enthusiasm of the Blues.
With Laurie Daley making the brave decision to pick the likes of Josh Jackson, Andrew Fifita, David Klemmer and Boyd Cordner instead of veterans Luke Lewis and Anthony Watmough, the young Blues proved they weren't overawed by the Origin arena despite being pipped at the post by their opponents.
It's where the likes of inspirational veterans Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk comes to the fore. Cronk's game-winning field goal was no fluke – he's done it many times before (something about sinews rings a bell?).
Take into account the presence of other leaders like Nate Myles, Corey Parker and Johnathan Thurston, and you can't blame Maroons coach Mal Meninga for raving on about the host of veterans who continue to tick boxes for the Sunshine State.
"[Our experience] and desire shined," Meninga said post-game. "All of those little things that are required at Origin level – the team's game management, field position game by applying pressure on the Blues – our boys were prepared to put in for one another.
"We made plenty of special efforts at special times in the game when it was needed and that comes with experience. This team is full of a fantastic bunch of fellas who are some of the greats of the game, and they keep on proving critics wrong."
Chambers made for Origin
Queensland winger Will Chambers looks to have nailed down a Maroon jumper for many years to come with a dominant performance on the right edge.
Along with centre Justin Hodges, the duo showed up opposite three-quarters Daniel Tupou and Michael Jennings in defence.
Considering he earned an Australian centre spot over Hodges in the recent Trans-Tasman Test, the 27-year-old is a readymade replacement for the veteran when he calls it quits on his representative career at season's end, as attested by his match-high 228 metres, match-levelling try and efficient defence.
"The carries and efforts from Will Chambers, and Justin Hodges too, were exceptionally good," Meninga said.
"It's Will's second game now [at Origin level] and I said after his first game it was one of the best ever debuts I've ever seen and his performance out there was close to the best second appearance I've seen as well."
Blues boosted by Maroon penalty shot
With the scores locked at 10-all inside the final 10 minutes the Maroons got a lifting penalty just inside the Blues half and rather than turn the screws, they opted to try for a long-range two-pointer.
It was always a tough shot and Thurston's attempt fell short of the cross bar, allowing Dugan to freely return the ball and hand the Blues a let-off.
Commentator Peter Sterling noted that when deciding whether to take a penalty goal, it's worth considering what your opposition would like, and in this case the Maroons did what the Blues wanted them to do.
It was a rare moment of poor judgement from the champion side, as noted by Farah afterwards.
"When they took the shot at goal I thought that was a big boost for us," he said.
"They missed obviously and off the back of that we had a bit of momentum [but] we just didn't execute down there."
Blues come undone at start of second half
To a man, NSW blamed the poor start to the second stanza for setting the tone for the Maroons to take the advantage.
Having had the better of the first 40 and a four-point lead, Farah followed a good dummy-half run with a high risk offload that Pearce couldn't hold on to straight after the resumption. Three minutes later Hodkinson failed to find touch with a penalty kick. Five minutes after that a chicken wing penalty against Andrew Fifita gave the Maroons a leg up then two minutes after that Josh Dugan knocked on as the Blues had a rare attacking set.
Three minutes after that, in the 55th, when a good Pearce clearing kick helped the Blues out of trouble, they immediately handed back an offside penalty. Shortly after that, Will Chambers levelled up the scores when he crossed out wide.
"We let ourselves down in the second half with our execution," Farah said.
"The amount of possession they had was very difficult for us, we found ourselves just bringing the ball out of our own half a lot of the time and fatigue in the end probably cost us in terms of execution."
Pearce added: It was just disappointing those crucial errors at the start of the second half didn't allow us to get the field position in the second half.
"I don't think we really had any good ball at all and didn't put ourselves in a position to get points which against a quality team like that makes it tough to win a game."
These two articles both appeared first on NRL.com